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David Pleins

J. David Pleins, author of When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood (Oxford University Press), is Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.
Photo: Charles Barry

God and the Culture Wars

By J. David Pleins

 

Somehow the Bible always seems to be at the center of our culture wars. The battle this past summer was over Noah’s Ark.

Fundamentalists made a splash as arch defender of biblical literalism Ken Ham opened his $27 million Creation Museum, complete with dinosaurs going two-by-two on board the maiden voyage of Noah’s luxury liner. The dinosaurs, as Ham explains, were “juveniles”—small tykes that still left room on the boat for representatives from the rest of creation.

Since dinosaurs died out soon after the flood, according to Ken Ham, one wonders why God put Noah to so much trouble.

In any event, Ham’s museum gives the slickest pitch yet to biblical literalism with its six days (24 hours each) of the world’s creation—some 6,000 years ago. The museum lets fundamentalists appear “scientific” while seeking to undermine all of modern science’s views of life’s development.

Why embrace the 13-billion-year-old Big Bang, the fossil record, or the genome that binds humans to apes, when for the price of admission the visitor can be assured that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are all the science of origins they’ll ever need to know?

Doubtless many put the Creation Museum on their vacation agendas this past summer, but biblical literalists were not the only ones caught up in the Noah’s Ark craze. Secularists also got in on the act.

The Greenpeace organization, that bastion of progressive environmentalism, scored a coup that fundamentalists only dream about. They erected a 32-foot long replica of Noah’s Ark halfway up Mt. Ararat in Turkey to draw attention to the global-warming crisis. Greenpeace’s “Ararat Declaration” tapped this legendary religious symbol in an attempt to push politicians past empty rhetoric toward taking action before it’s too late. Since the Greenpeace replica doubles as a hut for hikers, environmentalists are now able to bask in the Bible while remaining true to their secular environmental creed.

But environmentalists got more than their share of the Bible this summer with the arrival of Evan Almighty, a blockbuster with a strong environmentalist twist. In this film sequel to Bruce Almighty, newly-elected congressman Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) is tasked by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an Ark. A copy of Ark Building for Dummies provides Evan with the blueprint while animals that magically gather in Washington, D.C., supply the cargo. Despite his family’s initial protests, Evan saves his valley from the misguided plans of local developers.

Evan Almighty was not just any old Bible movie. The film’s director, Tom Shadyac, put his money where his message is. Buying 400 bikes for the cast and crew and planting trees to offset the production’s carbon emissions, Shadyac had more in mind than “raising awareness.” He really thinks we should do something to save the world!

Between Greenpeace and Evan Almighty, environmentalists—with Bible in hand—scored big points for the planet.

But all was not rosy in this summer’s culture wars.

A spate of atheistic-evolution and anti-religious titles were to be found on the bestseller lists. Big guns, like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens carried on the offensive against religion as the source of all the world’s woes.

Perhaps the most influential of the bunch, Dawkins, of Oxford University, used his book The God Delusion to tar-and-feather believers as sloppy scientists, poor philosophers, and religious militarists. Needless to say, Dawkins and his crowd sound about as shrill as the creationists who raise their ire.

As if to redress the balance, another of the summer’s featured bestsellers came from Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. His book, The Language of God, seeks to use the best of modern science to defend a religious belief system that does not fall into the biblical literalist trap.

The lone holdout among the secularists was the evolutionary socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson—himself a humanist raised in a fundamentalist household—whose book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth called on both secularists and biblical literalists to engage in a common struggle to protect the environment.

The message in all this is simple: For the sake of the planet and posterity, we need to lay down our arms in the culture wars to at least save the world for another round of bickering.

Now if I could just lay my hands on a copy of Saving Earth for Dummies